(CNSNews.com) – Republicans turned up the heat on the Obama administration Sunday, pressing for answers about its handling – at the time and since – of last month’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Already politically explosive, the controversy over the September 11 attack on the Libyan mission deepened last week with the emergence of an apparent contradiction between President Obama and his defense secretary concerning the immediate security response.
In his Oct. 16 debate with GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Obama said, “as soon as we found out that the Benghazi consulate was being overrun, I was on the phone with my national security team and I gave them three instructions. Number one, beef up our security and procedures, not just in Libya, but at every embassy and consulate in the region.”
In his Oct. 22 debate, Obama added a little more detail, “Now, with respect to Libya, as I indicated in the last debate, when we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way ...”
But on Oct. 25, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Pentagon press briefing that while there were forces in place in the region, the “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”
“And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, [U.S. Africa Command commander] General Ham, [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation,” Panetta added.
The development has fueled fresh Republican criticism, with some suggesting Sunday that the administration’s response to the attack, which cost the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, has moved to the top tier of issues important for voters ahead of next week’s election.
“There are two things people are talking about,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on CNN’s State of the Union. “They’re talking about the economy, and they’re talking about what happened in Benghazi.”
“Either the president didn’t give the directive or the president isn’t being truthful – or perhaps Leon Panetta acted as commander in chief,” he said. “That’s what – this is the subject right now that people are talking about, and the economy.”
On Fox News Sunday, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said that while visiting GOP centers in the battleground state, “particularly yesterday, this issue of Benghazi is really bubbling up. People are demanding answers from this administration. I think it’s going to have a big impact here in the state of Wisconsin.”
On ABC’s This Week former House Speaker Newt Gingrich referred to “this strange story over the weekend that the secretary of defense apparently refused to obey the president's order.”
“If the president is telling the truth and he actually instructed his assistants to get aid to Benghazi, we’re now being told that the secretary of defense canceled that. And I think these kind of things all drag down the Obama campaign.”
Gingrich contrasted the Obama campaign’s schedule adjustments in response to Hurricane Sandy to corresponding decisions made after the Libya attack.
“You’ll notice he’s canceling his trips over the hurricane,” he said. “He did not cancel his trips over Benghazi. And so you have to wonder, between Benghazi, the price of gasoline, and unemployment, just how much burden the president’s going to carry into this last week.”
(On Sept. 12, Obama flew to Las Vegas, Nevada for a campaign event, a decision for which Romney criticized him during the Oct. 16 debate. Obama began his speech that night by remembering the four Americans lost and pledging that “we will bring their killers to justice.”)
“This is not about politics,” Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. “This is about a huge national security issue that affects all of us and there was a shocking breakdown, operationally – not to have the security there in the first place and then not to respond to these guys, in their pleas for help for seven hours during a firefight. It’s unbelievable.
“And now, we are hearing that the president of the United States, based on his own words, issued a directive immediately after he found out about the firefight, saying that he wanted to be sure those people on the ground were safe and they were getting what they needed. It didn’t happen.
“This means either that the president’s order was not followed, which would be a breakdown in terms of the White House procedure, or, it means the order wasn't issued. We need to find out about this,” he said. “It’s not about politics. It’s, it’s a very serious situation.”
Portman said he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, had written to Panetta more than two weeks ago with questions about Benghazi.
“We haven’t heard anything,” he continued. “We sent another letter yesterday, with the additional information we’re now hearing directly from the president about this order that he issued. Why wasn’t it followed? This makes no sense.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), speaking on the same program, said he had an “enormous amount of faith” in those heading up official investigations now underway.
“We have four Americans whose lives were killed and I think the most appropriate thing here is, let’s have this information investigated in a proper and very appropriate way – the same way the State Department has launched previous investigations whenever members of the personnel are killed abroad.”
On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner urged Obama in a letter to “publicly address” questions about Benghazi, saying Americans were “increasingly reading information contradicting early accounts by your administration of the causes of the events of the day.”